The pol­i­tics of pres­i­den­tial li­braries

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

Ge­orge W. Bush is poised to choose South­ern Methodist Univer­sity in Dal­las as the place for his li­brary and mu­seum. Lots of stu­dents and alumni are pleased, and sev­eral other schools, in­clud­ing Bay­lor and Texas A&M, wanted the li­brary. The pres­i­den­tial li­braries can teach some­thing about pres­i­den­tial poli­cies and pol­i­tics the stu­dents might not oth­er­wise learn. This is what the aca­demic dis­ci­pline of a lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion is sup­posed to be about.

Pres­i­den­tial li­braries are some­thing else, too, shrines to bur­nish the me­mory and legacy of pres­i­dents. Ex­cept for the Nixon li­brary, they’re ad­min­is­tered by the Na­tional Archives at tax­payer ex­pense. They’re a rich source of in­for­ma­tion that is oth­er­wise hid­den amid the pol­i­tics, some­thing you might ex­pect ev­ery pro­fes­sor to dream of. But not at SMU. In an as­ton­ish­ing ad­mis­sion of ig­no­rance of how the world works, even the world on a clois­tered cam­pus, 150 of the univer­sity’s 600 pro­fes­sors say they’re afraid aca­demic free­dom and po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence would be com­pro­mised by the ar­rival of new in­for­ma­tion. One pro­fes­sor frets that the pub­lic might con­fuse the Bush Mu­seum with the univer­sity. (Only if they can’t read.)

Pro­fes­sors, at least in the­ory, are ded­i­cated to open­ing the minds of stu­dents, to teach the in­tel­lec­tual dis­ci­pline and rigor that en­ables the young scholar to make dis­crim­i­nat­ing judg­ments. Ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, even in­for­ma­tion about how a pres­i­dent made the mo­men­tous de­ci­sions over his eight years in of­fice, is what ed­u­ca­tion is all about. This, alas, is a naive view on many cam­puses, where learn­ing is dumbed down to make it fit the pro­fes­sor’s own cramped un­der­stand­ing of pol­i­tics.

This con­tro­versy is fo­cused now on SMU, a private church school cater­ing to up­scale Texas fam­i­lies (and once a mighty col­lege foot­ball power), but it goes to the heart of what’s wrong on many other cam­puses, where the fo­cus is less on ed­u­ca­tion for cit­i­zen­ship than on force­feed­ing pre-di­gested and dis­tilled ide­ol­ogy pos­ing as learn­ing. Univer­si­ties dif­fer in the ways they suf­fer this post-mod­ern mal­ady, but many — and maybe most of the most pres­ti­gious schools — have moved a long way from John Stu­art Mill’s idea that a lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion should be con­cerned with civic ed­u­ca­tion.

“The proper busi­ness of a univer­sity,” Mill wrote, “is to give us in­for­ma­tion and train­ing, and help us to form our own be­lief in a man­ner wor­thy of in­tel­li­gent be­ings, who seek for truth at all haz­ards, and de­mand to know all the dif­fi­cul­ties, in or­der that they may be bet­ter qual­i­fied to find, or rec­og­nize the most sat­is­fac­tory mode of re­solv­ing them.”

To her credit, Rita Kirk, chair­man of the de­part­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pub­lic af­fairs at SMU, ob­served that the “wall” be­tween her univer­sity and the Bush li­brary would en­cour­age a “ro­bust de­bate” over pol­i­tics and pol­icy. De­bate, af­ter all, is what learn­ing is about.

Amer­i­can par­ents pay an enor­mous price for the ed­u­ca­tion of their chil­dren, up to $50,000 a year for four years for a bach­e­lor’s de- gree at the elite univer­si­ties. The nov­el­ist Tom Wolfe ob­serves that par­ents who are fo­cused on get­ting their kids into Har­vard pay lit­tle at­ten­tion to what they learn af­ter they get there. The schools with the best aca­demic rep­u­ta­tions are not nec­es­sar­ily those that ac­tu­ally im­part the best ed­u­ca­tion.

A new guide to col­leges and univer­si­ties sets out to help par­ents be­come bet­ter in­formed. The In- ter­col­le­giate Stud­ies In­sti­tute (ISI) has pub­lished “All Amer­i­can Col­leges: Top Schools for Con­ser­va­tives, Old-Fash­ioned Lib­er­als, and Peo­ple of Faith,” to iden­tify col­leges that most closely ad­here to Mill’s vi­sion of ed­u­ca­tion. The guide looks at schools that re­quire not only the study of the works of dead white men (Shake­speare, Mil­ton, Plato) held in con­tempt in much of the academy to­day, but the cru­cial con­tem­po­rary is­sues that are of­ten ig­nored. The guide asks whether a par­tic­u­lar univer­sity pro­vides an en­vi­ron­ment for ex­pand­ing “in­tel­lec­tual friend­ships,” where men and women eas­ily de­bate op­pos­ing ideas, where teach­ers en­cour­age the stu­dent to ex­am­ine un­pop­u­lar opin­ions.

Amer­i­can his­tory is the “dis­ci­pline” that suf­fers most from in­doc­tri­na­tion. Fash­ion­able his­to­ri­ans swing from de­nounc­ing Amer­ica for past sins to cham­pi­oning the con­tri­bu­tions, of­ten lit­tle more than myths, of newly minted ide­o­log­i­cal he­roes. This guide’s per­sis­tent theme is that the prop­erly ed­u­cated man must know “what he knows and what he doesn’t know.” He seeks af­ter “the good life” which does not re­fer to pop­u­lar cul­ture but to the “habits of con­sid­er­a­tion, cour­tesy, and fairmind­ed­ness.”

This sounds quaint to­day, but it was re­garded as es­sen­tial in ear­lier times as an ideal, if hon­ored mostly in the breach. A lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion is con­cerned with the process of learn­ing, the abil­ity to an­a­lyze ideas crit­i­cally. Wher­ever the pres­i­dent places his li­brary, the stu­dents on that cam­pus ought to be able to do that. We owe them that much.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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